England headache for Robinson as Van Gisbergen drops out with injury

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The Independent Online

It looks like being a tough old season. England's 40-strong élite squad, lovingly compiled by the national coach Andy Robinson during the summer, lost a second member yesterday when Mark van Gisbergen, the Wasps full-back, was diagnosed as suffering from a fractured jaw.

Van Gisbergen, one of the more prolific goal-kickers in the domestic game but desperate to show the best of himself at representative level, is not expected to reappear this side of mid-October and may miss the autumn international series.

One of two Wasps players who failed to survive the club's final preparatory fixture against the Borders on Friday night - Richard Birkett, the line-out specialist, picked up a neck injury that will prevent him featuring in the Premiership opener against Saracens at Twickenham this weekend - Van Gisbergen joins his fellow tourist in Australia last June, the Gloucester back James Simpson-Daniel, on the embryonic list of walking wounded. Their frustration must be bitter indeed. It is one thing to injure yourself in a big game; it is quite another to see your immediate international prospects disappear in a warm-up match.

These early calamities do not help England's cause. Had the back-line to face New Zealand in the first of this year's Tests been settled, Robinson and his attack specialist, Brian Ashton, would not have lost too much sleep over losing Van Gisbergen and Simpson-Daniel. But the unit is as far from settled. Only Charlie Hodgson, the Sale outside-half, and his club-mate Mark Cueto, have the look of certainties about them. At scrum-half and centre, as well as the remaining positions in the back three, decisions have yet to be made.

The other élite squad full-backs are Iain Balshaw, now of Gloucester, and Wasps' Josh Lewsey. As Balshaw may play much of his rugby on the wing this year, and as Lewsey is unlikely to be flavour of the month with the England hierarchy after making some pointed comments on the state of the red-rose nation, the situation is likely to get muddier before it gets clearer. Maybe Jason Robinson, the Sale captain, will offer the selectors an easy get-out.

Up on Tyneside, the Newcastle squad are publicly supporting the former Tynedale prop Ali Johnson, who was injured playing for his club two years ago and is paralysed from the neck down. Johnson had hoped to develop part of the family farm as a bungalow containing specialist equipment that would have helped him to function more independently, but planning permission was rejected by the local council. Yesterday, Jonny Wilkinson and company signed a petition pressing for a change of decision. The club are also giving Johnson free legal advice.

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